By Betül Czerkawski, PhD | November 13, 2015
Associate Professor of Educational Technology, University of Arizona
In recent years there has been a strong emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for a number of reasons. Strong STEM education allows us to:
- Train the workforce we need for the digital era
- Solve pressing and complex problems of our new digital world
- Compete economically with other nations
- Increase scientific research that will lead to innovation in all fields
STEM education has two key foci that provide support to all of these outcomes. The first is training new generations in STEM professions. How do we make sure our children and youth are ready to step up and lead in these fields? The second is implementing strategies that develop computational thinking (CT) skills in all students—even those who are not planning to select STEM-related professions themselves.
A basic mastery of computational thinking is a necessary element of job preparedness, effective citizenship and the ability to participate fully in modern society.
Computational thinking is thinking like a computer scientist. It encompasses the “thought processes involved in formulating problems and their solutions so that the solutions are represented in a form that can be carried out by an information processing agent” (such as a computer). The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) have also created an operational definition designed to be useful for educators. See it here.
This new enthusiasm for STEM education and computational thinking has brought about “cool” pursuits for students and professionals alike. We see people participating in coding boot camps, online coding academies, MOOCs and more. However, the extent to which these coding experiences engage people in computational thinking is unclear. Research in these areas is being supported through major grants from the National Science Foundation (e.g. STEM-C Partnerships; Cyberlearning).
As the interest in STEM fields grows, so does our need to adequately prepare pre- and in-service teachers in these areas. Although recent efforts on STEM are commendable, those of us who know the inside world of teacher education see a future that doesn’t look very promising.
There are two major reasons for this. First, as Jeanette Wing suggested in her influential work, computational thinking is a fundamental skill that needs to be taught in our schools with the same emphasis we give to reading, writing and arithmetic. How will this vital student skill be integrated into the teacher education curriculum? And how do we do this in a manner that engages teachers as part of the process?
At present, the use of even simple educational technologies is challenging in teacher education programs. As long as this is our baseline, it is doubtful that more complex skills such as educational computing or programming will have much chance or place in teacher education curriculum.
Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org, argues that there is no profession that will not be affected by technology in the next decade—even truck driving, agriculture and burger flipping. (See his informative Ted-X talk here.)
Which brings us to our second reason for concern about the future of STEM education.
Even as the Computer Science Teachers’ Association (CSTA) continues its efforts to integrate computational thinking into computer science teacher education standards, many states do not provide any computer science courses in their K–12 curriculum at all—even as part of their advanced placement programs.
For a stark representation of the consequences of our lagging educational efforts, see the interactive graphic put together by Code.org that allows you to check, state by state, how many computer jobs are currently open measured against how many computer science graduates the state has produced.
This cannot possibly serve the needs of our students or our communities in the increasingly technology-based world to come.
ETR’s research team has produced several recent contributions to the field of computational learning, including:
In addition to the lack of required course work and curriculum in the computational thinking and computer science arenas, most teachers do not have sufficient training in how to design an effective curriculum. Few are familiar with standard principles of instructional design.
In K–12 schools, there is a strong push toward measuring learning outcomes and testing students on these outcomes. But designing effective instruction is not part of the assessment plans.
When there are so many other critical issues confronting both students and teachers, concern about the lack of training in instructional design for teacher candidates may sound superfluous. But I would argue it is, in fact, at the heart of the issue.
We have some ideas about the environments and tools that foster computational thinking (see here, here and here, for example). But this hard-earned understanding will not advance our educational efforts if we don’t find effective ways to bring it to teachers.
In order to resolve these concerns, three fundamental issues should be our top priorities:
Computational thinking is not the same thing as learning about computer programming. The teaching of CT should not be the sole responsibility of computer science teachers. Integrating CT into the general curriculum will not come about by offering programming or coding lessons taught by computer science teachers.
Computational thinking is a broader thinking skill that should be incorporated into every course in K–12. For this to happen, the entire teacher education curriculum must be examined closely and updated accordingly.
Writing lesson plans or conducting outcome-based assessments does not constitute instructional design. Teacher education students need to be exposed to the core theory of instructional design early in their training to build a strong background on effective curriculum design and development.
All stakeholders in a community’s education efforts, including school districts, parents, teachers and administrators, civic leaders, employers and the business community should advocate for updates to K–12 curricula so schools can better respond to 21st Century needs. Common core standards are a good start, but we need to expand these to include instruction about new knowledge and skills. This includes computational thinking and other computer science subjects.
Many countries, including Russia, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, have already made room in their curricula for computer science. U.S. schools should also be part of these new advancements.
These are only starting points. Much remains to be done to make computational thinking and instructional design common subjects addressed throughout teacher education programs.
Here are some of the next critical questions we need to be asking about 21st Century teacher education and student instruction.
Is this a lot to ask of our educational systems? Yes, of course. But remember, the changes in society brought about by technology have been profound and massive. We should not be surprised if the effort to keep our educational endeavors aligned with contemporary needs is similarly substantial. Only when we answer these and many other questions will we be fully ready to prepare new generations for much needed computational tasks.
Betül Czerkawski, PhD, is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Technology and Program Director and the University of Arizona. She is also completing a sabbatical with ETR. Her work focuses on design and development of online learning environments with the use of emerging technologies and computational thinking practices. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or found at LinkedIn.